An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’ fourth novel and one that boasts the accolade of winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, beating five other finalists, including my previously reviewed title, My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Jones’ latest follows newlyweds Celestial and Roy at the start of what will prove to be pivotal events in their relationship. Roy is arrested, wrongly accused of rape, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Throughout the book Roy is mainly in prison whilst Celestial has to deal with the tragedy in the outside world. Five years later Roy is released, determined to find out if there is a marriage left for him to return to. The story is split into three sections with the first one predominantly consisting of letters written to and from Roy by Celestial (and other characters occasionally) as he serves his sentence. Time is quite hard to track during this period although occasional references within character letters suggest years are passing. I like to think this gives a glimpse into Roy’s experience within this period because when in prison it is likely a similar feeling occurs; it's hard to keep track of the days although you know time is indeed passing and the world is moving on without you.
There was little I didn’t like about this book, I salute Jones for what is undoubtedly a wonderfully crafted novel. Her style of writing is soothing and almost poetic, there was little resistance in my reading experience. It also meant she was able to do several emotional scenes in the book justice; making them hard-hitting equally to both the characters and to us. Take, for example, a scene where Roy and his dad Big Roy have their first meal together upon Roy’s release and his father bursts in tears because his wife, Roy’s mum, is not there to share the moment or the joy that has come with it. It’s freeze frames of moments like this that tell us more about the characters than their words do. This bittersweet moment stays in my memory because it was a rare and tender tableau of male fragility between father and son.
Chapters in the novel alternate between different protagonists: Roy, Celestial and Andre, all who happen to be parties of a love triangle close friends with a long shared history. Strong (supporting) characters reside in Roy’s parents, Celestial’s parents, and—to a lesser extent—Andre’s. The alternating chapters proved to be very beneficial allowing us as readers to witness singular events from the perspective of several characters.
For some reason, I did find myself sympathising more with Roy, although it was clear all the characters were negatively affected by his incarceration. Roy is bold and prone to fits of anger, but also clearly someone who is sentimental and has a massive heart. A character trait that proves to be both a strength and a weakness to him. Celestial, on the other hand, is more clear-headed and independent, as proven by her adamant refusal to be submissive and tied down. Both traits traditionally associated with being a wife, I found her harder to warm to but was nonetheless in awe of her resilience and ambition as a character.
However, there are no black and white areas with the characters; they are all relatable, but equally questionable within their actions. It meant for me personally that instead of picking a defining side, I was forced to take a step back. I watched and observed as characters grew and changed over time.
The title does still remain elusive to me and upon finishing the book, it still isn’t clear what its meaning could be. Perhaps it could be that in the same way ‘An American Dream’ typically epitomizes the ideal American life, perhaps An American Marriage resembles the ideal relationship or marriage. A couple that sticks together through thick and thin, endlessly love each other, have children and grow old with one another. But like The American Dream, it's a romanticised idea and that simply doesn’t exist for most of us yet, such ideas are kept alive because the idealist in us desperately wants it to. As you read you witness a marriage in which both spouses are fighting between the-what-could-have-been and the hard reality of what is. What drives you to keep reading is what is whether Roy and Celestial would solemnly accept the cards life had handed them, or cling on to the pre-incarceration ideal of their marriage that they once had and fight to make that their reality.
I was interested to see how the topic of race was going to be handled; it is, after all, an inevitable topic considering we have two black protagonists. Interestingly, the topic isn’t covered in depth; although it is referred to at different points as it plays a key role in Roy’s incarceration. There is an emotional courtroom scene recounted by Celestial where she goes before a predominately white jury to bear witness to her husband’s character. She briefly mentions trying to appeal to the only black member of the jury; his life to him hanging in the balance of this one stranger who he may or may not be able to count on to see his humanity.
You won’t find any overt pressing social commentary in this book—there isn’t even really an indicator of what era Roy and Celestial exist in. I don’t recall much conversation or interest in wider national events that would have helped to indicate this; i.e. protests, economic events, or elections. In fact, when you start reading you enter a plot that exists more within a vacuum with the main focus being the protagonists’ feelings at any one moment in time. I suspect this was a deliberate move from Tayari in order to keep the lens focused consistently on Roy and Celestial as opposed to the reader being distracted by unnecessary extraneous variables.
A go-to for those who are also fans of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, An American Marriage is an intimate portrayal of black love in all its beauty and complexity. From another angle it can also be seen as a delicate case study of incarceration and wrongful convictions; how one singular event can have a ripple effect, creating many victims each affected in unique ways.
An American Marriage
By Tayari Jones
306 pages. 2018.